What Is Childhood Asthma?
Asthma is a chronic lung disease which can cause the lungs and airways to become inflamed or narrowed due to exposure to certain triggers, making it difficult to breathe. According to the American Lung Association, asthma is the most common chronic condition among children and currently effects an estimate of 6.1 million children in the United States.
As a result, childhood asthma is a leading cause of school absences and even hospitalization in the unfortunate event of a flare-up known commonly as an ‘asthma attack.’ There is currently no known cure for childhood asthma, but it can be effectively managed through treatment and proper care.
What Causes Childhood Asthma?
While the exact cause of childhood asthma is still currently unknown, it is likely that genetics and environment may be factors in its development. A child with an inherited tendency to develop allergies or parents who have asthma might be more likely to develop childhood asthma. Environmental factors like secondhand smoke or air pollution where the child lives can also come into play. Asthma attacks often occur after exposure to any variety of asthma triggers, and childhood asthma is no exception.
The most common types of childhood asthma are identified by their triggers. Allergic asthma is set off by exposure to an allergen (i.e. pollen, mold, dust mites, pet dander), while virus-induced asthma means that asthma symptoms present if a child is fighting a cold or respiratory infection. Exercise-induced asthma may cause children to show symptoms after physical activity like a gym class or sports practice.
It’s important to note that while some cases of childhood asthma are trigger specific, any number of triggers can cause asthma symptoms to arise in children, and sometimes it might seem like there is no trigger at all. Delayed reactions to triggers can make them harder to identify right away.
Other common triggers include:
- Indoor and outdoor air pollutants such as tobacco smoke or particle pollution
- Exposure to cold air or sudden temperature change
- Excitement or stress
Symptoms of Childhood Asthma
Signs and symptoms of childhood asthma may vary from child to child, or episode to episode. It is possible for a child to exhibit only one symptom or several at a time.
Some of the most common symptoms are:
- Frequent cough or coughing spells
- Wheezing or whistling sounds
- Shortness of breath Rapid breathing
- Chest tightness
Additional signs to look out for include:
- Trouble sleeping due to breathing problems
- Coughing or wheezing episodes that get worse with a cold or flu
- Delayed recovery from any respiratory issues
- Trouble breathing that hinders play/exercise
- Sore and chest neck muscles
When children experience asthma attacks, these symptoms can get much worse and become dangerous or potentially life-threatening.
- Severe coughing
- Serious breathing problems
- Turning blue in the face, lips, and/or fingernails
- Chest and sides pulling inward, struggling to breathe
- Using abdominal muscles to breathe
- Abdomen is sucked under the ribs when inhaling
- Nostrils widen when breathing in
- Fast Heartbeat
In the event of a severe asthma attack, seek medical attention right away.
How Is Childhood Asthma Diagnosed?
A pediatrician or primary care doctor typically diagnoses childhood asthma by taking a thorough medical history, asking questions about the child’s symptoms, conducting a physical exam, and sometimes performing chest x-rays or other imaging tests to rule out other causes for the child’s symptoms.
Children over the age of 5 receive a lung function test, which requires them to blow forcefully into a spirometer – a tubelike instrument that measures the volume and speed of the air flowing through it. If a child is too young for the spirometry test, some doctors might try prescribing asthma medicines for a few months to see how the child responds. Doctors may also test for other conditions that can exacerbate or set off childhood asthma, such as allergies or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Treatment for Childhood Asthma
After a childhood asthma diagnosis, a healthcare provider will put together a treatment plan to help manage symptoms and prevent asthma attacks, as well as an asthma action plan with triggers to avoid and actions to follow in the event an asthma attack still occurs.
There are short term and long term medical treatments for childhood asthma, and both are often necessary for a successful treatment plan. Short term quick relief medicines like rescue inhalers work fast within 10 minutes to relieve or prevent symptoms during an asthma attack, while long term control medicines like inhaled corticosteroids are able to reduce inflammation of the airways and prevent them from narrowing over time.
Childhood Asthma Risk Factors & Prevention
Childhood asthma may be more likely to develop as a result of the following risk factors:
- A family history of allergies or asthma Living somewhere with high air pollution
- Previous allergic reactions – including hay fever, food allergies, and skin reactions
- Other respiratory conditions – previous infections, chronic runny nose, pneumonia
- Childhood obesity
- Heartburn or GERD
The best way to prevent childhood asthma is to closely follow treatment and action plans from a healthcare provider.
Here are some prevention techniques that can help:
- Identifying triggers and limit exposure to them to avoid asthma symptoms
- Providing a smoke-free environment – exposure to tobacco smoke, especially in infancy, is a major risk factor for developing childhood asthma and can also be a trigger later on
- Staying active and maintaining a healthy weight – while activity can sometimes be a trigger for exercise-induced childhood asthma, being overweight can also worsen asthma symptoms and create other health risks for the child
- Keeping heartburn under control as it is a common asthma trigger
- Make sure to consult with a healthcare provider often, as asthma changes over time and regular check ins can allow necessary adjustments to the treatment plan in order to keep symptoms under control